Lenin and the Russian Spark
A hundred years ago this week, a German train that had been secretly carrying Lenin and other revolutionaries ended its journey in St. Petersburg.
The New Yorker | 20 April 2017
On April 16, 1917, a short train carrying thirty-two passengers steamed into one of St. Petersburg’s less distinguished stations, completing an eight-day journey from Zurich. These passengers were arriving late to a revolution that had started without them, earlier that year, after food riots broke out in the imperial capital. But one of them—Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—would quickly seize control of events. By year’s end, he had launched what would become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which replaced the empire it despised but remained largely within its geography. Reflecting on these events years later, Winston Churchill would compare Ulyanov, or Lenin, as he styled himself, to a “plague bacillus” that had been introduced into a body at precisely the moment it could do the most harm. The train injected the bacillus late at night, when it arrived and was greeted by a delirious crowd. The next day, Lenin was off and running, speaking and writing at a frantic pace, rejecting compromise, relentlessly pulling the Revolution toward his hard Bolshevik line.
“To the Finland Station,” Edmund Wilson’s history of socialism, published in 1940, took for its title the name of the dreary railroad terminal that welcomed Lenin to St. Petersburg. Serving St. Petersburg since 1870, the year before the Paris Commune, the station was described by Wilson as “a shabby stucco station, rubber-gray and tarnished pink, with a long trainshed held up by slim columns that branch where they meet the roof.” It was not one, he continued, suited to “the splendors of a capital.” Decades after Lenin’s arrival, when Wilson was doing his book research, he found peasant women sitting there, with “bundles and baskets and big handkerchiefs around their heads,” seated on “benches rubbed dull with waiting.” Long after the Revolution and all its world-changing promises had settled into a grim stasis, waiting was still a Russian specialty.
The train entered Finland Station a hundred years ago this week, and the end of its voyage marked the beginning of new, seismic events that reshaped the world as the First World War was ending, unhappily, for nearly all of its combatants. It’s a centennial that President Vladimir Putin, no fan of dissent under his own rule, has some ambivalence about commemorating.
A new book by Catherine Merridale, “Lenin on the Train,” pays careful attention to the secret rail journey through Germany, Sweden, and the Grand Duchy of Finland that brought Lenin to his destination. A hundred years ago, Russians reeled from a war that was going poorly, a tsar, Nicholas II, who was failing, and the constant threat of invasion and intervention. Lenin’s arrival in 1917 was orchestrated by cynical German leaders who were eager to weaken Russia’s fragile government by sending in a well-known incendiary element, in order to inflame tensions that were becoming acute thanks to catastrophic military defeats, a long history of suppressing dissent, and the simple lack of food. Lenin’s first newspaper had been called Iskra, or “spark,” after a line one poet, Alexander Odoevsky, wrote in response to another, Pushkin: “from a spark a fire will flare up.”
That is precisely how it turned out. Lenin was quite willing to accept help from his sworn enemies, although he went to some lengths afterward to cover up the German origins of the plan. Later, it was important to him to call it a sealed train—a phrase that became famous in history. It described a train passing through Europe secretly, in a state of extraterritoriality, without passport controls, almost as if it did not exist. It just glided quietly through the cities of war-torn Europe, under German protection, carrying its deadly cargo toward Germany’s weakened adversary on the Eastern Front.
Churchill’s image of Lenin as a bacillus had a certain resonance for other reasons: the occupants were quarantined on the train, as if it carried a rare disease. Almost no one was allowed to get on or off. Stefan Zweig, the Austrian essayist, called it a “projectile,” as if it were a canister filled with sarin. The little band of revolutionaries who boarded at Zurich had only each other, as they passed through one city after another: Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Berlin. True, there were German soldiers watching their every move, but they stayed in a forward part of the train car, separated by a line of chalk drawn on the floor, which served as an international border between “Russia” and “Germany,” two nations that were technically at war and could not speak to each other. Lenin tried to avoid leaving his carriage, to be able to say later that he had never set foot in Germany, but in Frankfurt the band of passengers secretly stepped off the train to spend the night.
The United States also had something to do with the decision to send the sealed train on its journey, albeit indirectly. Ten days earlier, on April 6th, Congress had declared war on Germany. The imminent arrival of American arms and men promised to transform a war now in its third year, and to bring enormous resources to bear on the Western Front. As a result, Germany was desperate to finish off its huge enemy to the east, and eager to try anything. Maxim Litvinov, a Soviet diplomat, later said that the decisive factor that led the Germans “to authorize the passage of our comrades was the entry of the United States into the war.” Still, the success of the plan surprised all of its authors, including its central protagonist. A day before he left, Lenin was still trying to round up support, and telephoned the U.S. Embassy in Bern. A young staffer answered, but, to him, the matter did not seem urgent—he was on his way to play tennis—and he told Lenin to call back the next day. That return call never came; the staffer, Allen Dulles, went on to become the head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Throughout the winter, Lenin had been quietly living in Zurich with his wife, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, of very little concern to anyone, banished indefinitely from his homeland. They lodged with a cobbler and rarely went out. The great revolutionary was something of a bookworm, going to the public library every day when it opened at nine, coming home to his tiny apartment for lunch at 12:10, and going back to the library from 1 P.M. until closing. There, he read longingly of earlier revolutions—the Paris Commune above all—and wrote inflammatory articles that were read by tiny numbers of purists, equally far removed from the action. But his own revolution seemed to be receding. He was getting older, and he thought it would be many years before Russia was ready. Krupskaya later wrote, “Never, I think, was Vladimir Ilyich in a more irreconcilable mood than during the last months of 1916 and the early months of 1917.” “We old folks may not live to see the decisive battles,” he admitted glumly in a January speech. He felt “corked up, as if in a bottle,” his wife said.
On March 15th, the day he heard the news that food shortages had led to chaos in Russia, he was stunned, and walked to the lakefront in Zurich, where newspapers were publicly posted. There, for the next few days, he received the vertiginous news. The tsar had abdicated! Up was down, and vice versa. Could he go back now? A new world was opening up. It was almost surreal.
In fact, the word “surrealism” was coming into existence at exactly that moment, one of the many ways in which artists and writers were trying to invent what Guillaume Apollinaire, the inventor of the word, called a “New Spirit.” To a surprising degree, Zurich, the Swiss city we think of as home to banks and burghers, was also a fountain of creativity, embracing irrationality even more passionately than Paris did. From around Europe, expatriates had descended upon Zurich to escape the horrors of the war. Not far from Lenin’s flat, James Joyce was writing word symphonies into his “Scribbledehobble” notebook and beginning to write “Ulysses.” A few streets away, another word, “Dada,” had been coined to describe the deliberate nonsense one group of spirited artists wanted to create, reading poems full of words that they invented on the fly, choreographing Dada dances, and spending much time, the way artists do, in a local café that they called the Cabaret Voltaire. They chose the word “Dada” because it meant so many things in so many different languages—a rocking horse in French, or “yes, yes” in Romanian and Russian.
Yes, yes. The tsar had abdicated! Through all the noise and nonsense, it was becoming clear. Lenin had to get back to Russia; he wrote a friend, “We have to go by some means, even if it is through Hell.” But how? Briefly, Lenin toyed with the idea of renting an airplane and simply flying over Europe to land in Russia. Such a death-defying act might have made him the greatest Dadaist of them all. But it was not feasible in 1917, and he sulked, furious that the Revolution had started without him.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, another banished expatriate, this one in New York City, was also absorbed in the news from his homeland. Each day in the early spring of 1917, Leon Trotsky would commute from the Bronx to a tiny basement newspaper office at 77 St. Mark’s Place, in the East Village. Within a year Trotsky would become, with Lenin, the other architect of Russia’s transformation into the Soviet Union. One of the more sublime headlines that would appear in a year full of them displayed New York’s robust self-absorption for all to see: BRONX MAN LEADS RUSSIAN REVOLUTION.
To call Trotsky a Bronx Man was an exaggeration—his passage through the borough was brief. But it was meaningful, as a recent book, Kenneth D. Ackerman’s “Trotsky in New York, 1917,” reveals. Trotsky and Lenin had known each other a long time, as allies and rivals, since the old days of Iskra—the spark. Trotsky had arrived in New York on January 14th, after being expelled from France and Spain, and found work at Novy Mir, a tiny Russian newspaper that was sold for a penny around the East Village and the Lower East Side. Remarkably, it employed not only Trotsky but Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, who would go on to become another important leader of the Russian Revolution until, like Trotsky, he fell to Stalin’s purges.
Despite its high-octane Bolshevism, Novy Mir was quite happy to accept advertisements from Budweiser, tobacco companies, phonograph manufacturers, banks, and other pillars of the American economy. That helped to pay the staff, who scrounged for lodgings where they could. The Trotsky family found a three-room apartment that cost eighteen dollars a month just west of the Bronx River, near the 174th Street subway stop on the old Third Avenue El. On his way to work, Trotsky often stopped at small deli in the Bronx, the Triangle Dairy Restaurant, which was serviceable for a cheap meal.
On March 15th, the news of the tsar’s abdication crossed the Atlantic and reached Trotsky in the Novy Mir office. Across New York’s Russian districts—including places where huge numbers of Jews who had fled the tsar’s pogroms had settled—the news spread rapidly from window to window, across the clotheslines and fire escapes. Like Lenin, Trotsky knew immediately that he must return. But to cross the North Atlantic in the spring of 1917 was no simple matter, especially in his case. In addition to the German submarines, there were the British and the French, who were in no hurry for the Russian Revolution to begin, since Russian troops were desperately needed on the Eastern Front. Trotsky made it on a ship to Halifax, Nova Scotia, but was detained there for a month before international pressure finally compelled the British to release him and let him continue east.
Lenin’s voyage was simpler, because the Germans wanted this projectile to gather speed and destroy Russia once and for all. The fastest way to introduce him into Russia’s bloodstream was by rail. Lenin had been denouncing the railroad as an instrument of oppression, and the “summation of the basic capitalist industries, coal, iron and steel.” But it was efficient. Because the trip took place on a German train, we have a fairly good idea of the timetable. What the Germans called der Russenzug—the Russian train—left Zurich at 3:10 P.M. on April 9th. As Stefan Zweig wrote, “It was 3:10, and since then the world clock has kept different time.”
Accommodations were ordinary: a wooden carriage, painted green, with two toilets and a baggage room. In one of his earliest official decisions, the future leader of the Soviet Union decreed a system of tickets to the single toilet. Those using the toilet to smoke were given “second-class” tickets, and had to wait behind those who needed it for more basic purposes. It was a long journey, interrupted by occasional stops, when the train would be guided into a siding and the authorities asked questions in whispers. North of Berlin, the train became an amphibious vehicle, as the carriage was separated from its locomotive and placed on a ferry to cross the Baltic. In Sweden, the plans were nearly derailed because the extraterritorials had no papers; but German efficiency took over again, and soon they were on their way. In Stockholm, a memorable photograph was taken during a rare descent from the train, showing Lenin walking fast, with an umbrella and derby, looking more burgher-like than usual.
From Stockholm, the train proceeded very far to the north, nearly to the Arctic Circle, before crossing into the Grand Duchy of Finland and curving south again, toward St. Petersburg. It was 11 P.M. on April 16th when Lenin approached the Finland Station. A marching band was on hand to play “La Marseillaise” and other songs of the revolutionary left; a triumphal arch had been built, and a large crowd came out to welcome Lenin back. The scene was carefully re-created twenty years later by a Soviet artist, Mikhail Sokolov—so carefully, in fact, that he inserted someone who was not there at all, but needed to be: Josef Stalin, smiling, just behind Lenin.
Not everything changed overnight. The carnage of the war did not slacken simply because they had made it through the lines. But Lenin deftly took advantage of the public’s exhaustion with the war, demanded that Russia stop fighting, and turned his attention to the bitter struggle for power that followed the tsar’s abdication. It might have gone in many different directions—the United States was hopeful that a proud new democracy was beginning, and was the first to recognize the early post-tsarist government of Alexander Kerensky. But Lenin and his allies—including Leon Trotsky, who finally made it back—carried the day and built something very different, a new kind of state that the world had never seen. For many Russians, exhausted by war and privation, it was a time of immense hope. The Germans who had sent Lenin were also hopeful. Soon after his arrival, a German diplomat in Sweden wrote a note to a colleague: “Lenin’s entry into Russia successful. He is working exactly as we would wish.”
Not long after his return, Lenin wrote that “there are no miracles in nature or in history,” but he admitted that, now and then, “peculiar co-ordinations” occur that “must appear miraculous to the burgher’s mind.” So his train journey to the Finland Station may have seemed, even to him; the remarkable result of a series of secret cables, passed between allies and enemies, which resulted in the complete transformation of the world’s largest country. And, by extension, the rest of the world, for the huge fact of Russia was never possible to ignore, then or now.
On November 7, 1917, Leon Trotsky coined a phrase that historians still use, in his angry remarks to the Mensheviks as they departed the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, in St. Petersburg, leading to the victory of the Bolsheviks. “Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history!”
Just who belongs in the dustbin and who does the sweeping up changes over time. In 2009, a bomb blew open a hole in the backside of Lenin’s statute outside the Finland Station. In recent weeks, young people have been demonstrating against Russia’s leader and his tsar-like pretensions, his suppression of freedoms, and his cynical foreign policy. A hundred years after Lenin arrived at the station, the dust particles continue to fall from the explosions of 1917.